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Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio supporters are fighting each other and not Trump

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Donald Trump is still on top of the GOP primary polls. But supporters of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are spoiling for a fight — with each other.

A new dark money group run by a Rubio supporter is now airing an ad calling Ted Cruz weak on terror, as Politico's Shane Goldmacher reported Tuesday. The ad shows news clips about this month's Paris attacks, and then its narrator says that "Ted Cruz voted to weaken America's ability to identify and hunt down terrorists" (referring to a Cruz vote for an NSA reform bill).

Now, a pro-Cruz Super PAC is fighting back. It's released its own ad saying that "Rubio stood with Obama and Chuck Schumer on his Gang of Eight Amnesty scheme and it's hurting." Therefore, the narrator intones, "Rubio's lashing out, attacking Ted Cruz." And the ad brags about Cruz's NSA reform vote, saying Cruz "clamped down on Obama's NSA spying."

Now, it's important to note that the anti-Cruz ad is not from any of the most important groups in Rubio's operation. As I wrote earlier this week, the closest aides to Rubio are running the dark money Conservative Solutions Project (which has spent millions on positive ads) and the Conservative Solutions PAC. This ad, however, is being paid for by a group called American Encore, headed by GOP operative Sean Noble. So this may not be a fight that the main Rubio brain trust actually wanted to pick.

Still, it's just the latest indication that, despite Trump's poll dominance, Cruz and Rubio's supporters think the real race is now between the two of them. I wrote about this "Cruz vs. Rubio" theory last month — basically, lots of people are still assuming that Trump is doomed to collapse, clearing the way for a real contest between the two more experienced (but not too experienced) politicians. So, rather than provoking a fight with Trump, Cruz and Rubio's backers are trying to play the long game.

Even Trump's stubborn refusal to collapse in the polls may not change this core calculation. Cruz and Rubio both probably think they could win a head-to-head race against Trump. So, if the race does end up coming down to Trump vs. a more traditional politician, Cruz wants to be sure that slot goes to him, and Rubio wants it for himself.

But this is risky. The Washington Post's Matea Gold and Robert Costa reported Wednesday that there will likely be no coordinated, serious effort from GOP elites to stop Trump before the Iowa caucuses. And, beyond that, a recent poll actually shows Trump beating both Cruz and Rubio in head-to-head matchups. So time will tell if this strategy is a good idea.